Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Great Teachers" - A Very Public, Ongoing Dialogue

Recently there was an interesting article in the UK Guardian, What makes a great teacher, that highlights some of the key factors that make up a great teacher. This ongoing analysis of our profession will always be a more "public" debate than most other professions will ever experience: most of us have attended school and experienced an array of teachers and teaching styles, very few professions have or will touch people the way ours does. After going over these key points in this article it made me think of how this translates to my teaching environment at the elementary level and whether there is more to his explanation of great teacher.

So what makes a great teacher. Francis Gilbert thinks it's the following:
  • Experience
  • Ongoing Assessment
  • Collaborative learning
  • Going beyond content
Gilbert stresses that excellent qualifications doesn't amount to an excellent teacher - this can only come from experience, but experience alone can't get you there. He also values personality in the classroom, "If you don't have the right personality, you'll suffer in the bearpit of today's classrooms". But having the right personality to collaborate, share, and learn with colleagues and the community also goes a long way - and this is especially relevant in today's increasingly digital world. Teachers need to stay current, and online social and educational networks can provide professional development, encouragement and direction from their professional colleagues world wide. In addition, there has always been a need to collaborate with the greater community, especially when working in an urban setting with people from a wide variety of social-economic and ethnic backgrounds. These collaborative relationships require a certain tact and sensitivity, and take time to foster. Great teachers pull from other talents outside the classroom and school.

Collaborating can also promote a more positive work environment when it comes to curriculum planning and assessment. There needs to be a common understanding of the curriculum expectations, achievement levels, and the strategies and tools used to teach throughout the grades - teaching should be viewed as a continuum rather than isolated grades. If teachers know what students have achieved prior to entering their class, and where they will go beyond their class, they can teach more effectively. This type of understanding creates an equitable platform for collaborative work such as moderated marking and team planning: and The Ontario Ministry of Education's Capacity Learning Series discusses the benefits of teacher collaboration. Great teachers have a broad understanding of the curriculum and can adapt their skills readily to any new teaching situation.

Gilbert elaborates on the needs to genuinely learn what students' interests are and the crucial role of assessment. Ongoing assessment is key: without assessing students frequently you can't offer feedback which is essential for individual growth. Students need to be aware of their shortcomings and strengths just as teachers do in order to improve. In Ontario it is not just standardized tests that determine the approach we need to take in our classrooms, it's the individual and accumulative teacher assessments and feedback that help to target the individual levels within the classroom which helps move students forward. Tapping into students prior knowledge is also a type of assessment which allows teachers to personalize their lessons to fit their specific group of kids. That's why it should never be the same from year to year - even if you are fortunate enough to get the same grade. Great teachers know their students and provide differential teaching to the best of their ability.

As for content knowledge Gilbert states: "There is now a great deal of research to suggest it is not your subject knowledge that's the determining factor of how well your pupils achieve, but how you use your assessment of their achievements to plan and shape succeeding lessons." Another point to this would be that in today's digital and information-ladened world students can use a number of internet tools and networks, and within days or a week obtain specialized knowledge which would, in a traditional classroom setting, take much longer. To help students discern information teacher's need to place critical thinking skills at the forefront. This is the real challenge. Great teachers engage their students - they get their students to think.

But what else? A great teacher and friend has often said that "teaching is a privilege"...what do you think?